If Behind the Candelabra is indeed Steven Soderbergh’s last film (he’s now calling it a sabbatical), then I’d like to make the argument for Soderbergh being one of the five best filmmakers of the past twenty-five years. At the very least, he deserves to be known as one of the most freakishly diverse. It’s sometimes difficult for me to imagine that one filmmaker is responsible for Traffic, The Informant!, Behind the Candelabra, and Magic Mike. A quick look at his filmography still makes me feel as though I’m looking at eight or nine different filmmakers.
And it’s not just a question of variety. It’s the fact that it’s an incredible range of films that by and large are pretty damn good. Filmmakers who manage to create a body of work tend to have their stylistic touches, and Soderbergh is no different, but it’s still easy to be impressed by how he is able to apply his directorial style to such a broad collection of movies. I could certainly be wrong, but it doesn’t seem as though there are a lot of filmmakers out there right now who match Soderbergh’s versatility. It reminds me a little of some of the directors who made their names in the long-gone decades past. I’m thinking in particular of those who crafted films under the studio system. Many of them retained certain personalized touches from one film to the next, but they still had a job that demanded they work on an incredible mixture of genres. Some of them even made films that could be classified as being in the same genre, but differing in terms of things like length, style, cast, budget, and studio whims.
There are so many extraordinary creative directors working today, which flies in the face of the bitter contention that nothing original or exciting is being done in films. Soderbergh is definitely one of those voices. Even after he became a Hollywood mainstay a long time ago, it seemed like he was still keenly interested in finding time for projects that truly interested him. Or they all interest him? That seems plausible enough. I’ve never felt compelled to pursue a lot of interviews with the man, but I have seen and read enough to get at least the theory that he would have likely been miserable making variations on the exact same movie for the duration of his career.
And I have no idea if that career is actually finished. I’m starting to accept the fact that I’m not very good at guessing those things. But since I have to keep typing, and since I can’t think of a better way to get us into the actual reviews, I will say that I don’t think he’s made his last film. I won’t pretend to know the man. I will go so far as to suggest that someone who has made as many films as he has in his career (and he’s made quite a few), and someone who has made dissimilar films as he has probably can’t retire for the rest of his life. It’s possible that changing his tune from retirement to sabbatical came out of considering a thought along those lines. The man is also only 50.
If he actually does retire? I’ll be interested to see what happens with his potential influence on future generations of filmmakers. I honestly don’t know if there is any real influence now, although I would like to think there’s some. The trouble with making so many movies in a relatively short amount of time is that doing so doesn’t really give anyone a chance to catch their breath. Some filmmakers don’t need a long break, retirement, or death for the world to give them a sense of where their work in the lifetime achievement award scheme of things. I don’t think the world at large has quite figured out where Steven Soderbergh belongs in that regard. A sabbatical will give us an opportunity to miss his creative output. Retirement will force his films into a more historical perspective than they currently exist in.
Some of his films are already considered classics by some. I’m certainly not going to argue with that opinion. I just don’t think we’ve even come close to fully appreciating what this guy has done since his days as an indie movie darling. It will eventually be figured out, and here’s to hoping we get a few more movies by the man before it is.
Behind The Candelabra (2013): A
Shame on any studio that purportedly turned down this movie for being “too gay.” We won’t even get into how unfortunate that attitude is to begin with. It’s also a shame that both Michael Douglas (who viciously reminds us that he can still do more than play Michael Douglas) and Matt Damon (who builds the development of his character so slowly that you initially think he’s not really trying) will ineligible for certain awards. All because HBO wound up being the only place in town that let director Steven Soderbergh deliver one of the most haunting looks at celebrity loneliness and codependent relationships in recent memory. There’s no fault to be found in the fact that this isn’t technically a biopic of one of the most flamboyant, strangely compelling entertainers of all time. Douglas’ performance is combined seamlessly with Scott Thorson’s infamous memoir (based on his relationship with Liberace) to give us as complete a picture of Liberace as any straightforward account of his entire life could hope to achieve. Who knows if this truly will be Soderbergh’s last film, but if it really is, then it’s a pretty impressive way to go out. The film is a lot like Matt Damon’s performance. It builds carefully, focusing largely on the relationship between Thorson and Liberace. The chaos that overwhelms and destroys their relationship is introduced in small pieces, and then in larger pieces. Finally, in scenes so huge that we can barely keep up with how everything is spiraling downwards into some truly frightening territory. And then it somehow brings us full circle by the time Liberace is dying of AIDS, and summons Thorson to his hospital room for a final meeting. Soderbergh has a reputation for being pretty firm on how he wants to tell a film’s story. Behind the Candelabra is one of the best examples of this in his entire career. This is a movie that unapologetically has its own agenda for how it’s going to unfold. That certainly doesn’t always work, but this is one of those cases in which it works to near-perfection.
The Great Gatsby (2013): D+
I had a weird logic behind my low-key optimism that Baz Luhrmann might just be the man to give me a film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated 1925 novel that I would actually like. Yeah, his films tend to be so hollow that they make Michael Bay look like a voracious student of Samuel Fuller, but I wanted to believe that his oppressively glossy style might somehow fit The Great Gatsby’s themes of decadence, betrayal, misguided hope, and regret. The story is there. I’ve always believed it’s a good one (although not Fitzgerald’s best). All it’s ever needed is a filmmaker to capture that excess and self-destructive level of dreaming. It’s also needed better casting than past film adaptations. Luhrmann certainly seems to have a good time creating his own hyperventilating version of the roaring 20’s. Unfortunately, Luhrmann’s intense attention to sights and sounds (and there are some impressive moments of those things) relegates Fitzgerald’s story of Nick Carraway (a very miscast Tobey Maguire) recounting his relationship to Jay Gatsby (Leonard DiCaprio) during the 1920’s to secondary status. The story is clearly serving no other purpose but to give Luhrmann ideas for reimagining the 20’s in his particular way. All the main beats from the novel are touched upon, but it’s hard to shake the idea that this is only happening because Luhrmann wants to get us to the next testament to empty eye candy as quickly as possible. If the sights and sounds are all you need, then you should be fine. You’ll leave the film in a giddy daze, and the real world will taunt you with its hateful blandness. What you and I are likely to agree on is Leonard DiCaprio. The only thing in this movie that seems to have a human pulse is DiCaprio’s take on Gatsby (although Joel Edgerton has some noteworthy moments). He is the center of The Great Gatsby’s universe. When he is confident, charming, mysterious, and almost god-like, the good times steamroll over everything in sight. It is when his love for Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan in another unfortunate miscast) and his hopeless addiction to the past take hold that everything begins to crumble. DiCaprio’s performance reveals an incredible understanding of this. It makes for a brighter point than anything Baz Luhrmann and company try to blind us with. For some, this is the best way The Great Gatsby is ever going to be told. For me, the wait for that very same thing continues.
The Bicycle Thief (1948): A+
An essential staple of Italian cinema, world cinema, and for anyone who wants to touch upon all the established gems of film history, The Bicycle Thief endures for more than just historical value. Vittorio De Sica’s unforgettable, painfully humane look at life in Italy after World War II reminds us that a flawless story flawlessly told, shot, and acted will prove itself worthy of attention for all time. The worst mistake anyone can make with The Bicycle Thief, adapted for film by Cesare Zavattini from Luigi Bartolini’s novel is to be intimidated by its reputation. You don’t have to be a film scholar (I’m certainly not) to appreciate the struggles of a working class father (Lamberto Maggiorani) to feed his family against the obstacles of a tumultuous Italy in the wake of the war. It is a story that speaks for itself to anyone in any language. A great deal of the movie revolves around the father’s relationship with his oldest child, played with unassuming authenticity by Enzo Staiola, and it is through their relationship that the movie makes every social comment it endeavors to make. However, the brilliant trick of The Bicycle Thief is in how we’re far too busy watching these non-actors interact with each other in such intensely realistic ways to notice the film’s depiction of its times and circumstances. We only think about the world that’s trying to crush them after the movie is over. And then we see the awe-inspiring parallels that can be found in life and movies. All the way up to today.
Ishtar (1987): D+
You still can’t get this notorious film on DVD (except in Europe), but you can find it online easily enough. What stands as one the most critically-loathed box office disasters in film history (it made about 14-million from a budget of 55-million) has found a little cult acceptance in recent years. But make no mistake about it: Almost anyone who sees this film is going to understand why it was a running joke on bloated Hollywood excess for years afterwards. Is it fun to watch under the so-bad-it’s-fun umbrella? Yes and no. You might enjoy the surreal, nonsensical banter between Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, which feels at times like documentary footage that captures the actor’s trying to relate to each other in the middle of a bender. You may get a kick out of the unbelievably ludicrous story of two inept lounge singers in the middle of a Cold War fiasco in Morocco (seems plausible). I know I wanted those things. I just personally didn’t get them. I just found myself saying things like “What in the hell is this?” for all the wrong reasons.
The Hangover III (2013): C+
Give The Hangover III (and I am going to believe the film’s assertion that this is the end of the line) credit for at least being a tiny bit more ambitious than the second chapter. I’ll even give the movie credit for entertaining additions to the cast, like John Goodman and Melissa McCarthy. I just can’t even imagine suggesting this to anyone who isn’t already a devoted fan. If you’re a fan who was disappointed with The Hangover II, then you’ll probably consider this an improvement. And in that context, it is an improvement. It’s also pretty clear that practically all of the regulars, with the lone, borderline-glorious exception of Ken Jeong, are just riding out the franchise to the end of the line. Galifianakis fans might be pleased that Zach is the only veteran of the series that’s trying, but this is still nothing more than a last grab at decent money. I’m fine with that. I’m a minor fan of these trivial comedies. This is fine way to move on to other inconsequential movies.